It was a beautiful Irish landscape with a great green hill dominating the skyline. It is not outside a city wall, but you can’t miss the reference. It’s in the title of the film after all – Calvary. It came out a week ago, and I’ve seen it twice already.
In the Confessional Box. Brendan Gleeson as the priest was listening to his parishioners. One man tells him about how he was sexually abused by a priest as a child. That priest is dead now, and he is going to kill Fr James a week on Sunday as punishment. He says: There’s no point killing a bad priest … I’m going to kill you because you’re innocent. This is a film about life and death, and the kind of life you lead and the kind of death you make matter.
Then the film takes you through the lives of the parishioners that Fr James is serving as you try and work out which of them is going to be the killer:
- The bruised Veronica, beaten up by her husband Jack, having an affair with Simon from the Ivory Coast, and taking cocaine with the atheist doctor.
- Michael from the big house, a big financier, abandoned by his family, sacked by his employers, rich but utterly despairing.
- The writer, an old man living on his own island, separate and not engaging, asking for a gun so that he can kill himself when life becomes too bleak
- The policeman who gives Fr James the gun that he intends to give to the writer. Fr James interrupts his night in with
- Good time Leo, the male prostitute
- Milo, the young man with a polka-dot bow tie, who wants a girlfriend and a life and discusses suicide
- The young serial killer in prison who can’t remember where he buried the last body.
- Fr James’ own daughter who is recovering from an attempted suicide (he was previously married and became a priest when his wife died)
Just about any one of them could be the person who came into that confessional box that Saturday night. In the little Irish town, every kind of hurt and sin is there.
They are the people like everywhere trying to have a good time and keep out the darkness. And they know that what they are doing is causing harm, that they are taking the road of self-injury, but they don’t have much confidence in life and those who claim to open the door to life.
Fr James is a good man, everyone says so, a genuinely good man. He does have a problem with alcohol and goes on a bender on the Friday night, but he is a good man. He looks on at the chaotic lives and sins of his charges with great compassion. Someone tells him: I think you’re a judgmental man, Father, and Fr James replies: I am, but I try not to be. They expect him to be judgmental, because they are projecting on to him their judgments of themselves. Fr James goes on to say that he thinks there is too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues. And asked which virtue he goes for, he says that forgiveness is greatly underrated.
Fr James tries to run away. He gets as far as the airport, but turns back to embrace his future. He wonders about using the gun to defend himself, but throws it into the sea. Resisting evil with violence is only to feed it. In the meantime, the church has been burnt down and his beloved dog is slaughtered. He hopes that the killer will change his mind, but in the end, this is way the killer has chosen to confront his own misery.
On the beach on that last day, the person you most expect to be the killer turns up and asks for help. He has reached rock-bottom and Fr James promises to help him. But he has another meeting first. And sure enough, the killer turns up, the butcher we’ve already seen with his dead meat.
And I’m telling you the story of the film because it is a calvary, about a good man going to his death because of the sins of the world. In the end, you hope and pray that the dying will make a difference, but what brings the healing is more the forgiveness, the greatest of all the virtues for Fr James.
At the end of the film, Fr James’ daughter goes to see the killer in prison, and she goes with compassion, with a tear in her eye. She has chosen to live and she has chosen to forgive. And there is hope that things can be different.